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Middle East

Court upholds jail terms for activists in Bahrain

The highest court in Bahrain has upheld the jail sentences of 20 opposition leaders accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government during pro-democracy demonstrations which began in February 2011.

A defence lawyer for the activists, eight of whom are serving life sentences, said the appeal court hearing was the last chance to have their punishments revised. Among them is Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who staged a 110-day hunger strike last year to protest the verdicts.

The confirmation of the sentences, originally imposed by military tribunals in 2011 using evidence allegedly obtained by torture, is a sign that hardliners continue to be in the ascendant in the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family that rules Bahrain. Ali al-Aswad, a former MP from the opposition al-Wifaq party living in London, said the upholding of the sentences comes as no surprise. He said: "The courts are part of the regime. They are the same judges who worked in the military courts."

The Bahrain government made no official statement about the sentences. But last year, the official Bahrain News Agency said the charges include "plotting to overthrow the regime" and having "foreign intelligence contacts". This was probably a reference to Iran, but an international inquiry sponsored by Bahrain in 2011 found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the Arab Spring uprising in February that year.

Some 55 people have died since then, as Bahrain's majority Shia community has continued to stage protests. They say they face systematic discrimination at the hands of the Sunni monarchy.